SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba (Reuters) - A day after Hurricane Sandy shattered Santiago de Cuba, retiree Rosa Maria remembered the sound of the storm as it battered her home in the city center.
“The noise of the winds was like the roar of lions,” she said on Friday. “It was terrifying.”
After the storm passed, Maria, 71, realized she was luckier than many.
The 498-year-old city that has played a major role in Cuban history was littered with fallen trees, broken buildings and downed power poles, but her colonial-era home suffered only minor damage.
Elsewhere, there was no electricity or water in the city of 500,000. The government said it would ship in soap and candles.
As Maria and others recovered from the shock of Sandy, they set about on Friday cleaning up the devastation left by the storm, which struck early on Thursday with 110-mile-per-hour winds and much higher gusts.
They joined soldiers and work brigades shipped in by the Cuban government to clear the streets, distribute water and maintain order in a concerted effort to regain a semblance of normality as quickly as possible.
Bulldozers and other heavy equipment worked around the city to move fallen bricks, knocked down signs and ripped off roof tiles.
“The city looks like a big ant’s nest, but organized,” said Eduardo Gonzalez as he walked through the city to see the damage.
The burst of activity was the beginning of what will likely be a long road to recovery in southeastern Cuba after Sandy cut a swath of death and destruction through the region on its way north.
Its powerful winds and rains were blamed for 41 deaths in several Caribbean countries, including 11 in Cuba. Most were killed by falling trees and in building collapses. The storm is on course to hit large parts of Eastern United States next week.
The Cuban fatalities were unusual for the communist-ruled country that has long prided itself on protecting its people from storms by ordering mass evacuations.
The government was still assessing the situation, but the Communist Party newspaper Granma reported that “the damages to homes, the electrical system and communications are substantial.”
Cuban television reports showed swollen rivers, damaged homes and flattened banana plantations.
“We have 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres) of bananas in this municipality. Today, more than 90 percent of the bananas are on the ground,” said a local official in hard-hit Holguin province.
Officials said other crops, including sugar cane and Cuban staples such as beans and yucca, were damaged by the storm. Fast-growing crops will be planted to provide food if needed, they said.
Heavy rains forced the closure in two places of the central highway that spans the island, a Cuban news service said. The province of Sancti Spiritus received 9 inches (230 mm) of rain in 12 hours, according to Cuban television.
In Santiago de Cuba, people lined up at stores to get bread and other foods.
Convoys of trucks bringing cable and other supplies for the electrical system rolled into city, which is 470 miles southeast of Havana. They were accompanied by utility workers from other parts of the country.
At the Hotel Melia Santiago de Cuba, hundreds of tourists waited in the lobby for buses to take them away.
Transportation worker Alexis Martinez said Sandy had blown off the roof of his house, but that his family felt it was more important to help the city than worry about their own problems.
“My wife is mobilized for public health and me for the rubble brigade. Our son is with his grandmother, and the roof we’ll see about later. Right now there are things more urgent to do,” he said.
Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta and Marc Frank in Havana; Writing by Jeff Franks; Editing by David Adams and Mohammad Zargham